Monkey See, Monkey Do:  How Parents’ Technology Use Influences Their Family

Monkey See, Monkey Do: How Parents’ Technology Use Influences Their Family

by Tracey Kite LCSW

As a parent, have you ever found yourself looking up from your own smart phone or tablet to tell your child to get off of a screen? Do they call you on it? One of the hardest things about parenting may be that kids learn much more from what parents do than what we say. Parents are active role models for their children, and parents’ attitudes and behaviors around media are a significant influence on a family’s media use habits. In our quest to help our kids be good users of time, how do we think about parents’ screen use?

In 2016 Common Sense Media and the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University surveyed 1786 parents of children age 8 to 18 in the US. They found that (white) parents with a BA degree or more averaged more than eight hours with screen media each day, with 75% of that time devoted to personal screen media[i]. 78% of the same group of parents report believing that they are good media and technology role models for their children.

One explanation for how parents spend so much time each day with personal media is media multitasking. Many of the parents in the study reported listening to music, sending text messages, using social media and/or watching TV while working - the same things that parents criticize kids for doing while doing homework.

There is also a growing body of research into the impact technology has on interpersonal relationships. Technoference, is a term which includes times when and ways that technological devices intrude, interrupt, and/or get in the way of couple or family communication and interactions in everyday life. What is it about smart phones that make us feel that we can engage in a conversation and simultaneously text or call someone else? Why do we feel compelled to answer a phone call when we are eating or in a meeting, or respond to a text message while driving?[ii] If adults struggle to resist these temptations, how much stronger are they for kids, whose reasoning and forward thinking ability isn’t fully developed?

So how do we make sense of this? Neuroeconomist Paul Zak suggests that the brain experiences social media as if it was the same as a real-world interaction by releasing what he calls ‘the cuddle chemical’, otherwise known as Oxytocin (importantly not to be confused with the painkiller Oxycontin)[iii]. The use of social media produced a calming, soothing, pleasurable effect that was chemically measurable in the brain of research subjects. The fact that the majority of Facebook users return multiple times during the day to ‘check in’ speaks to a classic need to emotionally connect with our digital friends, and refuel on the release of oxytocin. Playing video games turns on similar brain regions as those linked to cravings for drugs and gambling. Ditto for social media — every time we see a new post or get a reaction to ours, it’s like a hit of brain candy.

Understanding some of the reasons for everyone’s compulsion to use screen media more than fits our goals help us understand what makes it so hard to change that behavior. Yet few parents want to model using screen media 7+ hours each day and multitasking while working. How do parents start to change the patterns in their families? As always, the first step is to be more aware of media use. Before picking up the phone out of habit, ask yourself if you really need to check Facebook right now.

Here are some other suggestions to help increase awareness and decrease thoughtless use[iv]:

  1. Put away your phone when you’re walking — it’s not safe. If you can’t stop fiddling with your phone, put it out of reach for a while in your backpack or purse.
  2. Don’t stay signed into your go-to apps like Twitter or Facebook — if you have to sign in every time, you won’t check as often. If you tend to binge-watch TV shows, set a timer to interrupt yourself after a couple of shows.
  3. Don’t let yourself get distracted. Turn off the notifications on most of your apps — if you hear something ringing, it should be worthy of your attention, like a call or text.
  4. At work, try to schedule uninterrupted time to think and plan — most emails can wait an hour.
  5. Power down at night. Kids and adults should avoid tuning into digital devices for at least a half hour before bedtime. Bonus points for banning devices from the bedroom entirely so you’re not tempted to check them late at night or first thing when you wake up. If you can’t do that, at least silence your notifications.

Make a family plan for how to be more aware and thoughtful when using social media, and become each others’ coaches. Kids are often quick to remind adults not to use their phones in the car – and adults remind kids to put it away at the table. Make a penalty jar – every time you stray from a family rule, you put in a quarter or a dollar. Use the money for a family treat or for tzedakah.

Finally, be kind to everyone in the family as we adjust to a new media world and its mysterious impact on our brains – adults and kids alike!

Jewish Child & Family Services offers tweens, teens, families and community organizations like schools, synagogues, churches and camps, an array of services including prevention, outreach, counseling, leadership and sexual health services in a teen-friendly environment. Visit our site for more information.

[i] Parent media activities included watching TV, movies, and videos, playing video games, listening to music, using social media, reading print or electronic books, and using digital devices for other purposes, such as browsing websites, playing games, or any other activity.